Words About Music
The Dismemberment Plan “Emergency & I”
Before we kick off 2014 with some new album reviews (2014 is gonna start off pretty great from what I can tell) I figured I’d spend this week reviewing albums that I view as classics, not unlike Anthony Fantano’s year-end tradition of doing the same thing, which will take place this week on his YouTube channel. To start off classics week I’ll begin with the most recent classic and steadily go back in time. Let’s begin!
The Dismemberment Plan, as you know from my review of their comeback album, was an indie rock/post-hardcore/math rock group from Washington, D.C. that hit their creative peak with their 1999 album “Emergency & I,” one of the more imaginative albums to come out of the 90s. It’s relaxed at times and frantically energetic at other times, but it remains wittily and humorously sad for its entire duration. Lead singer Travis Morrison is one of the better songwriters when he actually tries, and “Emergency & I” is 12 instances of him trying and succeeding to put his thoughts and feelings into melody.
It’s hard to pin this album down to “one side is this and the other side is that.” Both sides of this album have their climaxes and comedowns in terms of speed and energy. We start off with the mid-paced “A Life of Possibilities” which introduces the odd time signatures that the Plan were known for playing with in this time. There’s a bit of wobbly synth and a repeating guitar phrase as Travis concludes each line with a falsetto’d syllable. For the most part, it’s a good introduction to the band because they’re known for their incredible mid-paced and slow-paced songs, but in my opinion nothing beats songs like the second track on this album, “Memory Machine.” On this track they take it up a notch, not only amping up the speed and vocal energy but also providing further time signature switches that are subtle but difficult not to notice. Plus we’re gifted lines like “There are times I think eternal life ain’t such a bad gig.”
Next is the 90s jam of all 90s jams, “What Do You Want Me To Say.” Sonically speaking, the chorus embodies the late-90s one-hit-wonder choruses in a way that almost makes it sound familiar the first time you hear it. It seriously sounds like it could belong on Semisonic’s lesser known second single after “Closing Time.” But, of course, Semisonic wouldn’t think to start off songs with lines like “I lost my membership card to the human race.” It’s a catchy, bouncy track that again proves the Plan’s ability to kill it without playing super fast.
The next two songs slow things up a bit, showing Travis’ more bitter side to his psyche. “Spider in the Snow” and “The Jitters” aren’t super exciting to listen to, but they’re worthwhile considering the somber instrumentation and the lyricism. If you thought The Dismemberment Plan lost that energetic spark, though, you’d be wrong. The next song, and the last on the A-side, is “I Love A Magician,” a freaky-fantastic 2.5 minute fast rocker that sounds like something The Flaming Lips would produce in the late 80s.
The next side kicks off with a minimalistic drum machine beat that continues for most of the song, “You Are Invited.” This is one of the more funny-sad songs on the album in which the narrator sings about being invited to hang out and have fun but not really enjoying oneself or feeling like you belong in a place where everyone else is having “fun.” It eventually climaxes into a more energetic track with all the instruments playing instead of the drum machine beat, and that explosion sets you right up for “Gyroscope,” a song that, from what I can tell, is in a 17/8 time signature, which feels a bit normal until it cuts into the next measure a beat short of a full measure.
The final four songs are some of the most memorable tracks on here. There’s the ever-popular “The City,” which is a very fun singalong jam even though it’s a totally sad song (and some fans speculate that Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” rips off this song). “Girl O’Clock” is a song about sexual frustration and anxiety during which Travis stutters noticeably and abrasively throughout. It’s also got a great opening line: “If I don’t have s-s-s-sex by the e-e-end of the w-w-w-week I’m g-g-going to die.” “8 1/2 Minutes,” the next track, is also energetic and is not unlike “Gyroscope” in terms of a slightly off-kilter time signature. The closing track “Back And Forth” is more relaxed and repetitive, not unlike the opening track.
“Emergency & I” is a rock and roll classic that seldom gets mentioned outside of your average indie rock internet discussion circle. While I wouldn’t call it critically unappreciated, I would definitely consider it underrated. It’s fun, relatable, and probably the least masturbatory math rock album ever written. There really is no album that delves into self-aware emo this well. If you’ve heard it you can probably agree and if you haven’t you need to change that now. It’s not difficult to enjoy, in my opinion. Some of these songs actually had radio potential during their time, considering how friendly some of it is, sonically speaking. Otherwise, it’s not your average 90s-radio-rock album. It’s more, and it’s better.